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How a Vermont binder business is helping people feel more at home in their body

Two people holding fabric. Bins of fabric in the background.
Isora Lithgow Creations
Eli and Krista Coughlin-Galbraith in their studio. They are the creative force behind Shapeshifters, an online shop based in Brattleboro that specializes in size-inclusive, gender-affirming clothing, including chest binders.

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility. It's a celebration of trans and nonbinary people and a way to elevate their voices, pioneered by transgender activist Rachel Crandall Crocker in 2009.

The day is also intended to raise awareness about the resilience that trans people have in the face of pervasive discrimination.

It's the anniversary, too, of the opening of Shapeshifters, an online shop in Brattleboro that specializes in size-inclusive, gender-affirming clothing, including chest binders.

Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke with Eli and Krista Coughlin-Galbraith — the creative force behind Shapeshifters — about the significance of this day and their own work with transgender communities. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: Let's start big picture. What does International Transgender Day of Visibility, or TDOV, signify for each of you?

Eli Coughlin-Galbraith: Well, I came out of a closet in 2011. So it was pretty new. When I was first sort of finding my community and my people, I didn't really learn much about it until I think 2012 or 2013. And the year after that, we started this store, Shapeshifters. So for us, this is a very personal day, because it's also our store's anniversary date, on this day where a whole lot of trans people are reflecting on how far we've come and our work going forward.

Well, happy anniversary. That's exciting. And, Krista, what does TDOV signify for you?

Krista Coughlin-Galbraith: You know, I'm not quite as in the trans community as Eli is — I'm not as genderqueer I guess.

Eli: Kristen is here making an expansive gesture to indicate that there are layers of transness in this family.

Krista: But yeah, it's our what, ninth anniversary at this point?

Eli: Number nine.

Krista: Yeah, it's always fun, you know, just on on that end of things, to think back about how far we've come and how much the community itself has really supported us. I think a lot of people didn't even necessarily recognize that they had.

A person sewing fabric through a sewing machine.
Isora Lithgow Creations
Eli Coughlin-Galbraith sews a chest binder, which is a garment that flattens your chest.

Well, I'm glad you brought up the history of Shapeshifters, because I'm curious to learn about how it first began, and how the business has grown since. In particular, I'm curious about that move from Brooklyn to Brattleboro.

Eli: Right. I was in Brooklyn, in 2011. When — I think the kids today call it — my egg cracked. I called it having a gender crisis. Krista was the first person to really support me when I ordered a binder. Krista was the one to say, "Hey, this sounds kind of serious. Do you want to talk about it?"

Krista: I mean, you know, we were dating at the time. So yeah, kind of a relevant conversation.

Eli: It was important. I discovered very quickly that there was one good, decent binder option; that store sold binders in black, white and ugly beige. And the two of us went to New York Comic Con and we made superhero costumes —
Krista: You made superhero costumes; I wore a superhero costume.

Eli: You helped me make them! Which meant that I had some experience sewing spandex. I said, "You know, this can't be that hard," and I made one, then I made five, and then I made a few for friends. You know, it started as a side hustle for 20-something-queer-Brooklynites who needed pizza money, but it kept growing. Then it was almost enough to pay our rent. I think it was Krista who said, "You know, if we moved to Vermont, that would pay our rent."

Krista: Well, Vermont came up because your family has house up here. The grandfather's legacy.

More from Vermont Public: 'We Are Everywhere': New Bennington LGBTQ Group Reaches For Visibility

I want to step back slightly, just for listeners who may not know, will you describe what a binder is?

Eli: Sure. So a chest binder is a garment that flattens your chest. A lot of people can want this for a lot of reasons. I would say that the largest portion of the people who buy them from us are transmasculine people who have a chest that they don't identify with in their bodies in some way, or makes them uncomfortable in some way.

Can you describe the importance of a binder in helping someone live their true identity?

Eli: I mean, personally, I put my first binder on, I looked in the mirror and I said, "Oh!" Because it was the first time I had looked in a mirror and not felt weirdly alienated from myself in a very long time. We have a wall in the studio covered with thank you notes from people all over the world. The notes say things like, "Thanks to you, I can go to work again," or "You really changed my child's life," or "Thanks so much; I feel so settled in myself now." For a lot of people, it's the difference between going outside and not.

Krista: Yeah, there's a point when you find a way to be comfortable with your body, then you buy clothes that you actively like rather than just buying them because that's something that will cover you up. People discover their personal style for the first time. Because they're able to actually think about how they want their body to look, and how they want to present themselves to the world.

One model wearing overalls and a blue binder with another model wearing grey cargo pants, brown binder and sleeveless jacket. They are back-to-back and smiling.
Isora Lithgow Creations
Models Lyssa and wahida omar showcase Shapeshifter binders.

As we mentioned earlier, International Transgender Day of Visibility, or International TDOV, was partially created to highlight stories that advocates felt weren't getting enough attention. What's still missing from the popular narrative when it comes to the experiences of trans and nonbinary people?

Krista: That we're just people.

Eli: This is one of the hardest things to add back into the narrative, right? Is that, "Oh, yes, we're your neighbors. We're next door to you."

Krista: Yeah, that was there when we first started almost 10 years ago, and it's kind of backslid.

Eli: Yeah, we've become sort of outliers, "Oh, that happens somewhere else, but not here." No, it happens here. It happens — everywhere in the country and everywhere in the world. I honestly don't think there's a neighborhood or a city in this country where we haven't sold a binder.

How do you two think our state is doing when it comes to supporting trans and nonbinary Vermonters, and what work still needs to be done?

Eli: I love Vermont. The bar is low in this country. Vermont's doing great, comparatively. The big challenges that I as a nonbinary and thoroughly transgender Vermonter have faced in this state have been challenges of health care, which is a national problem. I had a lot of challenges. Last year, in particular, because I was pregnant, and someone in the health care side of the insurance side noticed that my gender is nonstandard for a pregnant person. This caused a cascade of denial of services. This is the sort of thing that it's hard to say, "Oh, your state legislators can definitely fix that." Though, I do believe we're on a good path. Honestly, the on-the-ground support of local queer organizations —

Krista: Like Out In The Open...

Eli: Like Out In The Open, Outright Vermont, Vermont Pride — I could go down a whole list, and I love them all. I think that's one thing that Vermont does very good is the organization that's between five and 50 people strong, working hard to do their mission. I think Vermont has a lot of good ones.

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